Joe Lhota's "white woman clutching a subway pole with a black man in the background" moment.
The city of New York has been in a heated conversation with itself about about crime and safety more or less since the administration of Mayor Rudy Giuliani. During the Bloomberg years, that conversation has mostly been technocratic, turning on data points and dollar signs. But this year's mayoral election has brought New York back to the emotional, visceral politics of the past.
Democrat Bill de Blasio has built his whole campaign on a "tale of two cities" narrative that plays on New Yorkers’ anxiety about being priced out of Gotham’s prosperity. Now Republican Joe Lhota, a veteran of the Giuliani machine who is down in some polls by more than 40 points, has released an ad that says electing de Blasio would mean a return to the days of grime and everyday terror on the streets.
"Bill de Blasio’s recklessly dangerous agenda on crime, will take us back to this…" intones an announcer, as frantic music plays over images of graffiti, riot police, covered dead bodies on the sidewalk, and – this most tellingly – a white woman clutching a subway pole with a black man in the background.
The New York Times fact-checked the ad’s claims and found they were pretty flimsy, concluding that the spot was "the visual equivalent of hyperventilating….[relying] on a jarring and ultimately unexplained connection between Mr. de Blasio’s liberalism and frightening episodes in the city’s history."
"The images are so far over the top, it’s unbelievable that anybody responsible would ever have authorized such a thing," de Blasio said at a public appearance Wednesday, comparing the spot to the race-baiting Willie Horton ad that the George H.W. Bush campaign ran to damage Michael Dukakis in the 1988 race for president.
Lhota’s camp stood firmly behind their message. "Mr. de Blasio is lashing out because he knows New Yorkers don’t agree with his reckless and dangerous positions on crime," a spokesperson told the Times.
It’s unlikely that Lhota’s attack ad will have the impact on the November 5 election that the Willie Horton ad had back in 1988. But it illustrates that at least in New York, politicians still believe that the fear of a return to the "bad old days" of the 1970s and '80s is just below the surface, and worth trying to exploit.
Update 3:42 PM: It looks like Lhota’s campaign never got permission from photographer Matt Weber to use that picture of the older white woman clutching a pole on the subway. Weber told Gothamist, "I am a Democrat, but this is way beyond political as I have now been documenting New York for thirty years, and I'm concerned with people not paying for photos and even worse, stealing them. I am also very upset at having my work help someone I do not intend to vote for, especially since the image was stolen!"
The company that produced the ad for Lhota’s campaign, Wilson Grand Communications, contacted Gothamist to explain how Weber’s photo ended up in the spot:
We just spoke to Steve Grand, co-owner of Wilson Grand. He said the Lhota campaign sent them a website with "cool" pictures of NYC in the 1970s and 1980s and Weber's must have been there. Grand insisted his team searched for credits but even when they couldn't find any credit, they used the photos. (FWIW, when we uploaded our version of Weber's photo in Google Image Search, Weber's website was among the first three hits.) Grand told us, "No offense was intended," and that he'd be happy to compensate Weber or take the ad down if he wished.